Retrospective Ernst Lubitsch: King of Comedy By Edouard Waintrop

in 54th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Edouard Waintrop

After rediscovering the films of William Wellman, Gregory La Cava, Mitchell Leisen, Mikio Naruse, Preston Sturges and Anthony Mann, the film festival of San Sebastian and the Filmoteca Espanola had to make another strong effort: This year’s retrospective was dedicated to Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), the prince of comedy in the eyes of François Truffaut. It’s been ages since we saw the last retrospective of the director of To Be or Not to Be. In Europe, the last big tributes were celebrated in 1984 and 1985, more than 20 years ago, at the Berlin Film Festival and the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. They were decisive because they allowed the discovery of the masterpieces of Lubitsch’s German period (1915-1922).

At first, Ernst Lubitsch, son of a Jewish furrier who had immigrated to Berlin, wanted to become an actor. He learned his trade with Max Reinhardt, the master of German theater in the teens, and played his first parts in the movies in 1913, switching to the director’s chair only two years later. A lot of Lubitsch’s early movies are lost but there are still enough movies left to prove what a remarkable director he already was. Shoe Salon Pinkus (Schuhpalast Pinkus, 1916) showed extreme vitality, a sense of humor and just the right taste for women whom he directed with pleasure. Sally Pinkus, the hero, is a rascal and an upstart, ready to do everything for success including to seduce and to lie in order to become a kind of artist when he was selling shoes. Discovering the movie in the eighties, some film critics astonishingly found anti-Semitic clichés in the part played by Lubitsch himself (Pinkus). But the modern Jewish literature is full of those caricatures. Look at the novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer who also was accused to be an anti-Semitic Jew, or at the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” by Budd Schulberg or at the books by Philip Roth. Shoe Salon Pinkus definitely is a Jewish satire.

Three years later in 1919 the young director Ernst Lubitsch reached the top with The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin). Leaving behind the ethnic humor, he created something new, later called “the Lubitsch Touch”: the speed of the sequences, the visual creativity, the ability to characterize a figure in two shots, and the irresistible character of some of the gags made it obvious that there was not much left for him to learn. Just one thing: If there was something sexual believed to happen behind closed doors, the camera or a person are still putting an eye through the key lock.

Lubitsch stopped this kind of shots when he arrived in America. Was he afraid of censorship? Who knows. His refusal to show too much, the way he left a scene behind (Truffaut), made Lubitsch invent one of his most beautiful signatures: doors opening in front of a figure and closing in front of the viewer, thus creating a powerful suggesting effect.

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze, 1921), a sophisticated comedy, showed the same effect with anthology scenes like the prince saying farewell to millions of amorous women. We are still in the first decade of Lubitsch’s career. The action and the gags are just put one after another with no relation to each other. There are no limits to exaggeration and none to imagination. He reaches the summit of the burlesque — or the grotesque as announced by one of the intertitles. But Hollywood was not thrilled by his comedies. Hollywood liked Lubitsch’s period movies for the big audiences. In 1919 the Berliner Lubitsch directed Passion (Madame DuBarry), a brilliant evocation of France during the last years of the old régime. The next year Anna Boleyn, inferior to Passion, seduced the Americans. His first trip to California in 1921 convinced Lubitsch to stay there and to play with the most beautiful electric train in the world. Only months later he was hired by the 29-year-old Mary Pickford, “the little bride of the world”, who wanted to leave her teenage image behind. In December 1922 Lubitsch left Europe for good.

In 1923 he directed Rosita but Pickford didn’t like it. She called Lubitsch “a director of doors”. That was quite a good remark. But Rosita was a success, a triumph with both the critics and the audience. Warner Bros. offered Lubitsch a four-year-contract. So Lubitsch could go on with his experiments multiplying ellipses and ideas at a major studio, taking his place among the most esteemed directors of the twenties like Stroheim and DeMille.

Lubitsch confessed to be indebted to Charlie Chaplin. He was fascinated by A Woman of Paris. It was the first film where Chaplin left the leading part to someone else, creating a cruel society drama with cold stunning realism. The English director here achieved a stylistic inventiveness otherwise rarely found in his career. A Woman of Paris is a flop. But this didn’t stop his German admirer to continue on this way: the way of the sophisticated comedy, “the hybridization of his German comedies” (1).

In 1925 Lubitsch directed a brilliant adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan, the play by Oscar Wilde. In this movie we find key elements of a new kind. First there is a profusion of bright visual ideas and innuendos with less madness and more delicacy than before. Lubitsch often liked to start with a play transforming it into a real movie — with the help of former play writers like Jules Josephson in this case. Jean Domarchi wrote about it in 1968 in the famous French film magazine “Cahiers du cinéma”: “I had read the play by Oscar Wilde and I noticed that he (Lubitsch) added scenes that didn’t exist in the play, but most of all he let the audience know that Mrs. Erlynne is the mother of Lady Windermere. From that moment on we have the advantage to know what the heroine doesn’t know yet. The Hitchcock suspense is born, and there is no doubt that Lubitsch has the right to claim being the inventor of this effect with Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Domarchi is right: Lubitsch and Hitchcock are brothers in mind. They both are geniuses, molted in the heart of German cinema. They share the same inclination for the one detail that kills, the suspense (even without a crime scene in Lubitsch’s movies) and a weakness for blondes. Their concept of screenwriting is close, conclusively written scripts (even with drawings by Hitchcock) that only serve as an excuse for the unhindered flow of imagination and for directing. And they both considered that movies had to play with the audience.

In 1926, Lubitsch adapted another stage play by Meilhac and Halévy, The Marriage Circle, a play with mad sequences of misunderstandings and a doubtful moral. The upcoming talkies helped Lubitsch to continue his framework with stage plays. Samson Raphaelson, his favorite screenwriter in the thirties and forties, underlines: “Our work always starts with a stage play from Europe which is generally unknown in America”. (2). Lubitsch brought a lot of plays to the big screen: Trouble in Paradise by Aladar Lazlo, Design for Living by Noel Coward, The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar, Bluebeard’s Eights Wife by Alfred Savoir. Lubitsch’s first period of talkies is dominated by musical comedies coming from European operettas with Jeanette McDonald’s beautiful crystalline voice, and often (not always, Monte Carlo has Jack Buchanan) with Maurice Chevalier, who was never as seductive as when Lubitsch directed him. One Hour with You, Monte Carlo and The Smiling Lieutenant were successes. But the last and the best musical comedy The Merry Widow failed. In 1934 at its release the operetta is out of fashion. The Gay Divorcee by Mark Sandrich with Fred Astaire introduced the new genre to the world, the musical. Lubitsch was outdated. 70 years later The Merry Widow with its happy exaggerations and hilarious dialogues has lost all the wrinkles up to the last one. In the middle of the musical era Lubitsch directs a strange movie which brings confusion to all his fans. The Man I Killed isa pacifist melodrama. It tells the story of the French soldier Paul Renard after the armistice of 1918. He can’t live with the fact that he killed an enemy after having seen his face. So he decides to go to Germany to visit the parents of the man he killed. Without revealing his identity, Renard makes them believe he was a friend of their son. He marries the bride of his victim and stays in Germany. Besides the shots in the beginning (the military victory parade with shots alternating between the one good leg of a soldier and the crutch he has to use) the film doesn’t show anything of the usual Lubitsch style (3).

At that time Lubitsch directed two dazzling masterpieces and a wonderful small piece of film: Trouble in Paradise in 1932, Design for Living in 1933, and his sketch for If I had a Million (1932).In the last one he was extraordinary brilliant. Two minutes, quasi silent, one great actor: Charles Laughton. He climbs the stairs and opens half a dozen doors — a dozen shots and everything is said. In Trouble in Paradise a man called Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and a woman called Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meet in Venice and become partners. They go to Paris and get themselves hired by the CEO of a big perfume company (the admirable Kay Francis, the woman with the most beautiful back of her time) only to steal money from her. But love enters the game. Being her personal secretary Gaston succumbs under the charm of the multimillionairess thus threatening the harmony between the two thieves, the right order of things risks to be mixed up. We see a certain vision of life in Lubitsch’s movies: in general there is no such thing as happiness. Sex and the differences of the social classes are big human subjects. If a thief is handsome and full of charm we forgive him everything he does. Besides: The greatest crooks are not those we believe they are. Gaston is only robbing small sums of money compared to those being detoured by the very bourgeois Monsieur Chiron, the trustee of Perfume Collet. We also meet the characteristics of the Lubitsch Touch. Truffaut wrote about this movie: “The ellipses of the screen play only work because laughing creates a bridge from one scene to the next. In Lubitsch’s Gruyere every hole is masterly set”.

In Design for Living Lubitsch confronts a liberated woman, Miriam Hopkins, with two bohemians: Gary Cooper and Fredric March. She refuses to choose between the two and lives with both of them. That was a big surprise even in the American cinema before the Code Hayes. In a Lubitsch film women are neither puppies nor femmes fatales. They are protagonists full of life asking existential questions like in the two movies cited above and also in Angel, a sublime and melancholic comedy with Marlene Dietrich, or in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife where Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper inverse the genre of “The Taming of the Shrew”. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka, the first film to present a laughing Greta Garbo, also show an ironic and skeptical attitude towards politics; they were also Billy Wilder’s Hollywood entry as a screen writer. Years later, the director of Sunset Boulevard told stories about Lubitsch who always added something very sharp to the screen plays he wrote. He also brought up certain suggestive inventions typically of Lubitsch: “Lubitsch said more with a closed door than the today’s directors with an open fly.” Wilder also defined the Lubitsch touch: “Every director has a style of his own. There are those directors saying two and two makes four, the others explaining three and one makes four, Lubitsch only said two and two — and let the viewer do the calculating himself.”

In his last period (1939-1947), the director from Berlin modified his way of filmmaking using more dialogue and reducing the mise-en-scène. It can be seen as a decline of his abilities but this statement doesn’t seem evident looking at The Shop around the Corner (1939), a comedy about modest people. To Be or Not To Be (1942), the wild satire of the Nazi’s foolishness, created a scandal in the American press when it was released. Heaven Can Wait (1943) is a moral testament, as light and melancholic as the waltz of The Merry Widow. Cluny Brown (1946), the last but one movie he made, is a masterpiece and a tribute to liberty. We notice that these magnificent comedies begin quieter than those of the former period. Edward Everett Horton, irresistible sidekick of the films in the thirties, doesn’t show his stunning face any more.

On one hand Lubitsch was the toughest director (tougher than Murnau or Mizoguchi who had their eyes on painting, Domarchi wrote) on the other hand he was the most popular director of his time. He knew that people wanted to laugh. In that field Lubitsch was more than a prince, he was a king.